No-one wants to be a yes-person, but some of us secretly may be. If you find it difficult to say no to your boss, perhaps because for you it is synonymous with confrontation, rest assured that you’re not alone. Still, it is important to learn how to say “no”: a pathological inability to decline a request will eventually harm, not help you career, not to mention your health. So here are five effective ways to help you deliver a non-paralyzing, non-polarizing “no” to your boss and still keep your job, using a range of different situations as examples.
See also: How to say no in the workplace
1. Situation: Your boss asks you to do something impractical
What to do: Ask your boss what their main concern is, then think of different ways the problem or issue can be addressed which are more practical (for example, delegated, postponed or substituted by another option). Your boss’s goal will be to solve the problem, and if you show your boss that you are aligning yourself with that goal and have a viable way of achieving his desired outcome, the chances are that they will accept your choice of method.
2. Situation: A request clashes with other work
What to do: Agree to the request, but mention that you could do with your boss’s help in prioritizing your projects. Use the opportunity to communicate the nature and extent of your workload to them, particularly timelines, and let them decide which projects get dropped or delayed. Send your boss an email to summarise your discussion in case they ‘forget’ what you both agreed.
3. Situation: You don’t agree with a particular approach
What to do: You may be viscerally opposed to a particular, planned course of action but find it difficult to express your opposition. If this is the case, ask if you can suggest an alternative approach. It is unlikely your boss will say no to your request. If they do, you may have to accept that there is a bigger agenda unknown to you – in which case you could say something such as: “I have some concerns about this but I understand that it is your call.” If your boss invites your suggestions, make sure you have enough data/information to back up your suggestion. You and your boss ultimately should have the same goals: the interests of the company, so frame your suggestion so it reflects that.
4. Situation: You’re constantly asked to do work that’s not in your job description
What to do: Make a comment such as, “I have a slight concern that the others in the team may start to view me as the ‘X’ (e.g. kitchen supervisor) as I have done X (e.g. supervised the kitchen) on a number of occasions this month. Are you happy enough for someone else to take the reins this time? I’m willing to ask around on your behalf, if you’d like. And I could definitely use the extra time to finalise the XYZ bid which is due tomorrow.”
5. Situation: You’re asked to do something, but lack the confidence to do it
What to do: Enthusiastically agree to do it, and then ask your boss what the main priority areas are for him. Tell him that you’ll do the necessary research and call him back at a specified time to discuss it and establish the timelines for the main report.
The key messages here are to think through the real needs of your boss, rather than the face value requests, ask questions for clarification and remember that no one got ahead by saying “yes” all the time. You’re not a doormat, and you won’t help anyone, let alone your career, by acting as one.